Volunteering May Help People Age Successfully

Older adults who participated in volunteering and recreational activities aged more successfully than those who did not engage in these activities, a study finds.

By 2050, the world's population of people aged 60 years and older will double to 2.1 billion, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates. Because aging is associated with multiple chronic conditions, it is important to determine what drives people to age successfully.

Researchers at the University of Toronto examined whether participating in six types of activities — church or religious, education or cultural, service club or fraternal organization, neighborhood, community, or professional association, volunteer or charity work, and recreational — can increase the odds of successful aging.

For their study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the researchers used data from 7,623 adults aged 45 to 85 years at the time of recruitment who were followed for three years.

Successful aging was defined as freedom from any serious physical, cognitive, mental, or emotional conditions that prevent daily activities, as well as high levels of self-reported happiness, good physical health, and mental health.

About 72% of these respondents who participated in volunteer or recreational activities at the start of the study were still aging successfully three years later, compared to only two-thirds who did not participate.

After taking into account a wide range of sociodemographic characteristics, respondents who participated in recreational activities and volunteer or charity work were 15% and 17% more likely to maintain excellent health, respectively.

However, the study does not prove that participation in these activities causes successful aging. It may be that participants who were volunteering and/or physically active at the beginning of the study differed fundamentally from their peers who were not involved in those activities.

Additionally, most (79.5%) participants were well-educated with a post-secondary degree or diploma. Therefore, the findings may be hard to generalize to the Canadian population, in which 55% of people 65 years and older do not have a post-secondary education.

Previous studies have suggested various health benefits of socializing in older age. A 2021 research found that adults aged 70 to 90 who reported more frequent, especially pleasant social interactions had a better cognitive performance on the same day and over the subsequent two days.

A 2019 Harvard University study discovered that adults 65 and older who interacted with people beyond their usual social circle of family and close friends engaged in higher levels of physical activity and had greater positive moods and fewer negative feelings.

If further research establishes the causation between engaging in volunteering and recreational activities and better health, policies encouraging older adults to participate in such activities may help to achieve successful aging in later life.

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